Day #2: Exploring Waitomo Caves

The highlight from the day before was a four-hour, 78-mile drive south of Auckland to Hamilton, located in the Hamilton-Waikato region, beneath blue, sunny skies. Today, the chill drizzle and cloudy sky don't look promising, but no matter, I'll be in caves most of the day anyway!

I'm so thankful for my thermals as I open the door of the motel room and walk into the frigid air. When I mention the bit o' chill this morning to the inn's proprietress, she responds, "Well, it is winter," with a smile. And so it is.

A nice reminder before heading out.

A nice reminder before heading out.

My destination today: Waitomo, about 50 miles and 1.5 hours away from Hamilton. In Maori, "wai" means water, and "tomo" means hole or shaft. Records say Maori chief Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace, an English surveyor, extensively explored the underground cave atop a raft using just the light of a candle in 1887. Their entry point is where the tours now exit Waitomo Glowworm Cave.

The Waitomo Cave system is actually made up of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave, Ruakuri and Aranui Caves. I had purchased my tickets online and selected tour times for each of the three caves, however, the passing scenery once again proves to be just too much of a distraction and I arrive about 15 minutes late. Luckily, the cashier at the window is super accommodating and sets me up with later tours for each cave.

My first cave of the day, Ruakuri. An enthusiastic guide leads my group of nine people through vast caverns that are home to glowworms, and along subterranean streams and waterfalls amid intricate limestone structures. And he knows what he's talking about — seems our guide was in on the initial explorations of this cave system. Throwing about cave jargon and tons of information throughout our walk, our guide is definitely an expert in his field; I just wish I could remember half of what he said!

The natural structures hanging from the ceiling in Ruakuri are fascinating. One type near left of center of this image even looks like hanging drapery!

The natural structures hanging from the ceiling in Ruakuri are fascinating. One type near left of center of this image even looks like hanging drapery!

Cool walkways are easy to navigate while dark niches make you look even closer to possibly see something yet to be discovered. A tripod sure would've come in handy, but it wouldn't have been practical.

Cool walkways are easy to navigate while dark niches make you look even closer to possibly see something yet to be discovered. A tripod sure would've come in handy, but it wouldn't have been practical.

Stalactite or stalagmite? Answer: Stalactite.

Stalactite or stalagmite? Answer: Stalactite.

Glowworms in Ruakuri Cave. Did you know that glowworms aren't really worms? They're actually the maggots (in the larval stage) of a fungus gnat that looks like a mosquito. These are the sticky threads of a glowworm used to trap passing prey. More than 300 species of fungus gnats exist in New Zealand, but only this one produces light.

Glowworms in Ruakuri Cave. Did you know that glowworms aren't really worms? They're actually the maggots (in the larval stage) of a fungus gnat that looks like a mosquito. These are the sticky threads of a glowworm used to trap passing prey. More than 300 species of fungus gnats exist in New Zealand, but only this one produces light.

A glowworm in its cocoon stage that lasts up to 13 days. It will emerge as an adult.

A glowworm in its cocoon stage that lasts up to 13 days. It will emerge as an adult.

At one point during our tour, we hear a distant thundering roar. It's a waterfall! We don't actually get to see it because it's so dark, but we do see the people who have opted for the black water rafting adventure with The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. Wearing wetsuits and helmets, and floating on large tubes, these adventurers brave the cold temps, jump backwards into the water and climb a portion of the falls. Not for me in winter, but a definite summer must!

Entry to Aranui Cave. 

Much shorter than the tour of Ruakuri, it is still beautiful with its amazing formations.

Much shorter than the tour of Ruakuri, it is still beautiful with its amazing formations.

A stunning cavern of stalactites and stalagmites in Aranui Cave.

A stunning cavern of stalactites and stalagmites in Aranui Cave.

Unfortunately, I don't have any photos of the Waitomo Glowworm Cave tour simply because it's very dark and we're not allowed to use a flash. Our very lively guide takes us through the cave system, and then into The Cathedral that's about 18 meters high. Because of its excellent acoustics, the Cathedral has hosted a number of musical performances.

From The Cathedral, we're quietly led to the highlight of our tour, the glowworm cave. I think we've intentionally been guided in the near dark so as to give our eyes time to adjust. There's a quick smattering of surprise as we realize we're to board the boat in the dark with only the light of a flashlight. We quickly settle down as our guide takes us deeper into the cave in utter quiet. Since any noise will disturb the glowworms, even the boat is silent. Our guide stands on the bow of the boat, using only his physical strength to pull us across the water via guide ropes that have been carefully placed throughout the cave.

As our eyes adjust further to the darker-than-dark cave, we begin to see pockets of individual lights overhead. We then pass beneath a sky of thousands of glowworms. It's exquisitely beautiful, and yet, because we have been strongly encouraged not to make a sound, we can only gaze upward while marveling inward. It actually makes the experience that much more awe inspiring.

The Waitomo Cave system is a popular visitor attraction, but its roots go deep into Maori history. The Maori have been entrusted with its care, and as a visitor, I felt a sense of respect and sincerity of sharing similar to the practices of the Hawaiian people in the islands.

A few notes:

• Discounts for the caves are available at the website when you opt for two or three cave tours. It's best to reserve your tour early online especially during busy summer months. If you're like me and enjoy the journey just as much as the destination, leave early!

• At the top of the parking lot is a sign indicating different trails that traverse the Waitomo area. Allow for more time if you wish to explore them.

• Learn more about New Zealand and its people by visiting "Te Ara The Encyclopedia of New Zealand."

Stick with me as I continue my discovery of New Zealand's lovely North Island. Sign up for upcoming blog entries and share if you like this as well. Cheers!